Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Month: June 2011 (page 2 of 2)

Journalistic Verification, Amina Arraf, and Haystack

How did a Syrian blogger, who told beautiful and heartwrenching stories of life as a lesbian in Damascus, manage to trick so many people? How did an American software engineer, whose passion for the Iranian cause led him to build what he dubbed the safest of circumvention tools, do the same? The stories of Amina Arraf and Haystack contain odd parallels: Both took advantage of fervor around Middle Eastern uprisings, both had a grassroots formation of followers…and both thrived on the promotion of professional journalists, whose praise helped garner them support. Both were also absolutely sensational stories that may have caused journalists, otherwise scrutinizing, to discard their usual standards.

I’ve written extensively on the Haystack story, but to quickly re-cap: Circumvention tool comes out of nowhere, built by young, outspoken engineer. Wild claims about efficacy. Media picks up on the hype, young engineer wins awards, media builds the hype even further. Circumvention and censorship experts begin to raise doubts about the tool itself, eventually get ahold of it, tear it apart. Turns out it’s not as secure as the engineer–and by extension, the media–had hyped it to be.

In the case of Amina Arraf, her blog–Gay Girl in Damascus–gained a following amongst bloggers and Middle East enthusiasts, then was quickly catapulted into relative blogger stardom after a series of articles in prominent publications profiled her. Therefore, when on June 6, her “cousin Rania” posted to her blog that she had been kidnapped, the public was quick to believe it. It wasn’t until the next day, when Andy Carvin and others began to question the story, that the details started unraveling as the public quickly jumped in to sleuth the story.

So what made journalists cast aside their usual levels of scrutiny? Or, is it perhaps that journalists are not as careful as we trust them to be?

I would argue that the journalistic treatment of the Haystack story was far more problematic, not least because it was easier to verify: After all, the product’s engineer was based in the US. He was reachable by phone and traveled for several interviews and awards. Numerous journalists met him, and yet not one after questioned the security of the tool. In the case of Amina, the journalists (the pseudonymous “Kathryn Marsh” and Shira Lazar) who first profiled her should have seen red flags when they couldn’t get her on the phone, but they were also dealing with a situation in which digging too much could’ve put an already endangered woman in far more danger.

The Facebook page of "Amina Arraf", before it was removed

Nevertheless, the details laid out on Amina’s blog (parents’ and siblings’ names, place of birth) and her now-defunct Facebook account (over 100 photographs, numerous comments about her life) could have been checked up on. And the details in her blog that numerous Syrians have now picked apart (her father standing up to the mokhabarat, her spotting a Syrian woman in the Umayyad mosque wearing a Star of David) could have been scrutinized early on.

I asked Zeynep Tufekci, a colleague and friend who has written about both cases, for her take: “Arguably, Haystack was verifiable whereas it is never possible to completely verify Amina’s identity without somewhat endangering her. Haystack can and should be avoided and journalists should have done much better job re: Amina. But I’m not sure they can completely avoid a future Amina.”

Now, this is where I need to insert my own role in all of this: While I did not fall for the Haystack story (and was one of the earliest to question its veracity), I very much fell for Amina Arraf. Why? Well, first of all, I had spoken with her numerous times. Her knowledge of Syria stood up to my tests. Her personality in private conversation was consistent with her personality on the public blog. Friends claimed to know her (one even suggested she knew her “in real life” – looking back, the suggestion was rather vague, the boastfulness of someone who wants to get close to a story).

I was also late to believe she wasn’t real, and that, for me, is both easier and more painful to explain. It is also a story I hesitate to share, but one which continues to haunt me, as well as remind me every single day why I do what I do.

In 2009, I wrote a piece for the HuffPost entitled “Blogging in Iran: A Dangerous Prospect.” After writing the story, a young Iranian blogger named Omidreza Mirsayafi emailed me to tell me his story. He wrote:

When I see your post on the mentioned website, I became so happy that a journalist in other corner of world writes about the situations of Iranians journalist & bloggers and is concerned about us.

I don’t want talk about my past experiences because it saddens me. these days I’m so sad and I don’t know what to do. I was sentenced two years and six months in prison just for the contents of my blog. just for explain my ideas. many of journalist and bloggers and human rights activists got into trouble specially in last 4 years.Iran GOV heap scorn on the people of Iran specially the journalists, students, human rights & woman activists. We wish one day write in our blogs & papers trouble-free.

After this initial email, Omidreza and I exchanged a few more emails, and had a few chats. He even called me once. But new as I was to this scene, and owing to my own personal circumstances at the time, I didn’t do as much as I should, as much as he asked. On March 18, 2009, he died in Tehran’s Evin Prison. I wrote about it three days later, confessing my own guilt over having not said enough.

It is very much because of this story that I had–no, have–difficulty letting Amina’s story go. While her story has unraveled almost completely at this point, there’s still a small chance that the girl behind the blog was kidnapped. And even if she wasn’t, there is no doubt that thousands of Syrians have been imprisoned these past few months, hundreds killed. While Amina, if entirely fake, should not be the face of those Syrians, it’s so easy to ascribe her that role. We wanted to believe in her. We saw the beauty and tragedy in her stories and put her on a pedestal. Some have suggested it was because she was a lesbian, others have suggested it was her purported dual American citizenship. I don’t really believe it was either. Rather, it was the sense of courage we saw in her, to tell her story so loudly, that made us believe.

IFEX 2011 Liveblog: Ramsey George of Tactical Tech Discusses Info-Activism

Ramsey George of the Tactical Technology Collective conducted a session (several times, and in English and Arabic) on new media and advocacy strategies. Basing his talk partly on Tactical Tech’s excellent “10 Tactics for Turning Information into Activism” film (copies of which were offered to participants), he made the point early on that what people are doing online is very similar to what they’re doing offline when it comes to activism. Or, in other words, an authentic online campaign ties in “real life”, but uses new tools.

Ramsey defines info-activism as: “when rights advocates turn information about their issue into action that addresses it”. He asks us: “Does anyone know the difference between data and information? Data is raw numbers, it has no meaning; when it starts to mean something, it becomes information.” He says that what Tactical Tech does is turn data into stories.

“We don’t want to focus on tools too much,” he says, “because they’re the means, not the end.” Targeted advocacy has a goal; the activist knows what she wants to do. She then adds data–numbers, words–turning it into information, and packaging it. “It’s got to be based on something; it has to have a goal,” says Ramsey.

Evidence-based campaigning is the end goal, and Tactical Tech works with individuals and organizations to make that happen. Images, such as the one below from Egypt, play a huge role.

One of the ten tactics is “witnessing.” An example given is that of the Moroccan “Targuist Sniper,” who in 2007 videotaped police agents in the south of the country taking bribes from drivers. The activist’s videos received hundreds of thousands of views.

Though witnessing may not have a huge impact within a country, it can draw global attention to a cause. This happened with Burma’s “Saffron Revolution,” but also more recently with the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and across the Arab world. In both Egypt and Burma, the regimes–recognizing the threat of digital tools–cut off Internet access.

Safety is also a huge concern for activists using online tools. As WITNESS’s Sam Gregory puts it in Tactical Tech’s video, “we don’t want to double-victimize people who’ve experienced human rights abuses.” Important is helping activists understand potential implications of their work and help them stay safe online.

There are also ways that info activists can ensure their stories aren’t discredited. A recent example from Syria involves a young man whose video was discredited by the regime; the activist then went back and re-recorded himself at each location in the video, showing his identification as well as a newspaper that displayed the date, thus validating the original video.

Ramsey share another video that is a particularly strong example of info-activism:

In the session, we discussed the potential audience for the video–young people, policymakers, gun advocates–as well as what’s particularly effective about the messaging (one thing pointed out: the watermelon is the same size as the young man’s head, causing viewers to visualize the possibility). More information on the campaign is available here.

The ensuing discussion: You need to know who you’re targeting and where your video or image fits into the larger picture; this video, for example, leaves nowhere else to go–it’s essentially the end of a campaign. “This to me fits into a larger strategy,” says Ramsey, “for example, part of the reason young people aren’t afraid of guns is because they don’t understand what could happen.”

Ramsey points out the three-pronged strategy behind rhetorical analysis: Who’s the audience? What’s the message? What tools or strategies are being used?

The next example in the session is TahrirDocuments.org, an Egyptian project that has collected various materials used during the January 25 uprising. One document, leaked early on to the Atlantic, was meant to be kept offline and provided all sorts of images and tactics teaching people how to, for example, deal with tear gas.

Lastly, Ramsey shares the Lebanese Khede Kasra campaign, which advocates for gender equality by tackling gender in the Arabic language (the kasra is placed below the word to address a female and above to address a male, but people default to the masculine). “Khede Kasra” has the double meaning of “getting things moving.” The campaign first approached people on the street, offering them a word without the kasra and seeing where they put it by default. The campaign then moved to television, and became very popular, and thus, effective.

Ramsey says: “They took a really simple idea and built a campaign around it.” The campaign even got the attention of Lebanon’s Prime Minister. “What are some of the strategies that made this effective?” asks Ramsey, “they took a good idea and put it on a ton of platforms, but the key bit is that it was participatory, allowing people to act and be a part of the change. It went beyond the things that they produced.”

We also looked at the Tunisian Presidential Airplane campaign, which Sami Ben Gharbia has highlighted as an early Tunisian info-activism campaign that helped activists in that country build their skills over time, later contributing to the effectiveness of digital tools in the January uprising.

“In Western thought, we’re taught three basic ways to argue something: ethos, logos, and pathos,” says Ramsey, “but they left out a fourth one: mythos. Mythology: a belief in something you can see, you don’t know if it’s right and it may not pull on emotion or make logical sense, but it attracts you. This is an incredibly effective way to argue.”

“Also,” points out Ramsey, “Perception is everything; if people believe something to be real, then it is to them.”

Ramsey also argues that you should take time to identify your active allies, allies, neutral parties, opponents, and active opponents, so you can be prepared to know who to work with, against, and so you know who to challenge.

An effective campaign, argues Ramsey, must be participatory, engaging, easily accessible, and simple, but this is sometimes threatening to organizations, because they have to respond to people. When the audience can engage, so too does the organization. “And the simpler the better,” says Ramsey.

Individuals and organizations interested in learning more about how to leverage digital tools for info-activism can visit Tactical Tech’s website or get in touch with Ramsey.

Tweeting #Bahrain: A Futile Effort

In early February, Bahrain–like numerous countries in the region–caught revolution fever. Protesters took over the Pearl Roundabout in the capital, Manama, demanding reform, from February 14 to 17 until, on the last day, police stormed the Roundabout, killing seven and clearing the scene. Still, the protesters returned again and again. On March 3, clashes between the government and protesters (which media reported as sectarian, between the Sunni minority and Shi’a majority), furthered tensions. Just a few weeks later, Saudi troops entered the country, and the Roundabout monument–an icon in Bahrain–was dismantled.

As the street protests have died down–or rather, have been stifled–clashes have moved into the online space, with opposition and regime loyalists vying for the media’s attention. The opposition has been largely successful in using digital tools to get the attention of human rights organizations, as well as journalists. One journalist to take note early on was the New York Times‘ Nick Kristof who, after tweeting his experiences from the ground in Bahrain, was bombarded with tweets from Bahrainis who opposed the protests. Thus began a Twitter war.

I’ve watched journalists such as the Voice of America’s Cecily Hilleary and my good friend Amira Hussaini (who wrote about her experience here) fall victim to the Twitter regime loyalists.

Last weekend, I became the latest victim of the Bahraini Twitter war after I came across some tweets which claimed that I was behind a website called “Human Rights for Bahrain.” As it turned out, the website had copied and pasted several of my articles from Global Voices, about Bahraini bloggers who had been detained, causing people to believe I was the force behind the entire site (I assure you, I’m not).

Truthfully, I’ve been largely quiet on Bahrain. I tweet the occasional article, and I retweet friends in the country whom I trust, but the truth is, I simply don’t know or understand enough of Bahrain’s politics to be truly involved. And yet, as an advocate for human rights and free expression, I can’t remain quiet as journalists and bloggers are silenced for speaking out.

In any case, last Sunday, I was targeted by one Bahraini who decided to start a campaign to “educate” me about “the real situation in Bahrain.” Within a few minutes, I was bombarded with tweets, many from people who assumed that I supported the Bahraini opposition or that I was in fact behind the aforementioned website. While the woman who started the campaign remained polite, not everyone did. By the end of the day, I had over one hundred and fifty new followers, the majority in Bahrain.

As I’ve learned, I’m not even close to being the only target. These regime loyalists (frankly, for lack of a better term) are also targeting human rights groups on Twitter, as well as fellow Bahrainis who support the protests or who at some level have spoken up against the ongoing detentions of journalists and doctors. One friend in the country tells me that the majority of the individuals targeting me on Twitter appear to be part of the royal family or otherwise associated with the government. That same friend also says, “It’s not really about Sunni or Shi’a, it’s about maintaining the status quo.”

Nevertheless, some of the individuals on Twitter have also targeted Shi’a:

Others make extraordinary claims about what the opposition believes:

I had put the incident behind me until this morning when, at the IFEX (International Freedom of Expression eXchange) meeting I’m currently attending in Beirut, it was noted that Maryam Al Khawaja, who has been instrumental to Bahrain’s opposition, was meant to be speaking on the panel but couldn’t come. When I tweeted something a panelist said in her absence (Literally: “Panelist is now talking about #Bahrain, which has been “neglected and subject to a media blackout. #ifex11) I was once again bombarded, this time with insults slung at Maryam and her colleague Nabeel Rajab, who was detained and released in the past 24 hours.

Scores of others have called the protesters “terrorists.” Many blame them for the violence handed out by the Bahraini authorities and invited Saudi military. They are disparaged, across online platforms, as having “ruined” Bahrain.

As I said, I cannot speak for Bahrain; I do not know whether it is better to protest in the street or to attempt dialogue, nor can I begin to make assumptions about what form of government should prevail. Mahmood Al-Yousif, one of the bloggers arrested last month whom I wrote about, has shared his thoughts on this, and I think that they’re reasonable. He writes:

But, danger is in the offing. If people take it into their heads to confront the regime one more time, if they needlessly attempt to go out and re-occupy the erstwhile Pearl Roundabout, then in all probability they will once again be met with force which might result in loss of life, injury or at best incarceration. The indications from online forums and Facebook pages suggests that some are determined to tread that path, folly as it is. For the sake of Bahrain, I hope cooler minds prevail, and a very much restricted and proportional use of force is employed, if required to restore the peace.

Whatever the outcomes, the truth remains: 29 are dead. Four died after being tortured in prison. Bloggers have been arrested, as have scores of doctors. While there are numerous ways to reconcile the country and come to a positive solution, the facts must not be swept under the rug. And no amount of propaganda on Twitter will silence the truth.

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